Oklahoma court expenses, fines and fees rise in recent years

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
05/18/2019 02:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, right, addresses a group of criminal justice reform advocates on April 16 at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Supporters of changes in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system say court fines and fees are levied on people unable to pay them in order to support government functions. SUE OGROCKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
TULSA (AP) – Fines, dues and court expenses assessed to Oklahoma defendants have spiked since fiscal year 2007 and government agencies are increasingly relying on them as an income source, criminal justice advocates said.

Citations, fees and costs have risen 27 percent since 2007, the Tulsa World reported. State lawmakers have also imposed two administrative charges that collectively require defendants to pay an additional 25 percent of all fees amassed by the courts for the executive branch.

Court collections have contributed to around 66 percent to 90 percent of yearly district court subsidies over that same period.

Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said an impoverished person’s inability to pay either puts them in jail or they return to crime to satisfy the debts.

“For a person who may be justice-involved and on the lower socioeconomic scale, the punitive consequences for the inability to pay these fees and fines lends itself to additional involvement in the criminal justice system,” Steele added. “And we reach a point where we begin to criminalize poverty. And that should be unconscionable for any Oklahoman.”

State or local executive branch agencies are beneficiaries to one-third of the roughly $160 million in yearly collections of fines, dues and court costs, according to Oklahoma Supreme Court records.

“The costs imposed on a criminal defendant to run the ordinary, customary obligations of government is just not a good way to do business,” said Bill Kellough, a former Tulsa County District Court judge.

The sheriff dues in civil and criminal cases amount to around $9 million to $10 million annually, which is the largest collection of specific funds for an executive branch agency.

Two Tulsa attorneys and a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group have filed a lawsuit accusing the Oklahoma court debt collection system of being an unconstitutional “extortionate scheme.”

The suit stems from a disputed 30 percent fee on the entire residual debt of a case transferred to a collections contractor who a county sheriff hired to find and alert the person of misdemeanor or failure-to-pay warrants.

Lawyers want the suit against the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, 54 county sheriffs and a private bill collection company to be awarded class-action status.

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